Visitors at the National Gallery

Webchat: Museums 2020

The implications of the public's attitude to museums
Earlier this year the Museums Association commissioned BritainThinks to conduct research into public attitudes to museums.

The results of this research show that the public has a clear perception of the essential purposes of museums and strongly believes that any additional objectives must relate to them and not undermine them.

But what do the findings mean for our thinking about the future of museums?

Read about the research results here, pose any questions you might have for our expert panel in the comments section below, and join us on Monday 22 April at 1pm for a webchat about the findings.

Expert panel

Maurice Davies
Head of policy and communications, Museums Association

Viki Cooke
BritainThinks

Raphael Malek
BritainThinks

James Doeser
Senior officer, research & knowledge, Arts Council England

Matthew Linning
Head of research & development, Museums Galleries Scotland

David Fleming
Director, National Museums Liverpool

Comments

Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
Anonymous
22.04.2013, 14:01
I’d like to thank everyone on the panel and outside of it for some really interesting discussions. This is my first time engaging with the Museum Association so I shyly opted to remain anonymous. But you’re all not as big and scary as I thought so next time I’ll be sure to put a name behind the opinions.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
22.04.2013, 14:00
OK, it's 2pm so we're going to call it a day there. Thanks so much to our panel and to everyone who participated. It's thrown up some very interesting discussion, and will be very useful in informing the MA's thinking for Museums 2020.
22.04.2013, 13:48
Thank you for a fascinating discussion so far.
I'd be really interested to know how we can show the public how vital our social justice and wellbeing work is. Project reports and research papers are great, but probably aren't going to be read by the wider public.
Thanks, Laura
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
22.04.2013, 13:59
I hope the next Museums 2020 document will give a strong sense of museums' work in these areas and will be something museums can use to highlight that outside the sector. It's due to be published in late June.
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
22.04.2013, 13:58
Good question Laura - as a sector that is so reliant upon public funding, we have to hope that the public values what we do. If it doesn't, then we become very vulnerable. In my own work I have tended to concentrate on building big, diverse audiences (it's all relative, and all museums need to set their achievable ambitions) and then making sure that the politicians who vote the funding know about our achievements. Success breeds attention in the media, and politicians take more note of the media than any reports! Of course, it can take many years for advocacy work of this kind to bear fruit.
Anonymous
22.04.2013, 13:37
If I'm a museum goer who does not work in the sector how can I go about making a difference in the perception that museums are only there to collect, preserve and display? Can I only do this by voting with my feet and going to museums that I think challenge the preconceptions?
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
22.04.2013, 13:42
There is absolutely NOT a public perception that museums are there only to collect, preserve and display. The research talks about people valuing preservation and displaying things in a engaging way, but they also value active learning, being stimulated by museums, spending quality time with families. There are also lots of comments about linking the past to the present and future and about the fundamental importance of access for all.
Matthew Linning
Interim Research & Development Strategist, Museums Galleries Scotland
22.04.2013, 13:37
In response to Patrick, I believe we need some time to reflect and take stock. For the National Development Body for Scotland's museums and galleries, MGS is 'deliberating' on the findings and holding internal workshops. There are no 'one size fits all' answers to square these results with the views of museum professionals at the sharp end.

For example, within a Scottish context the community role of museums is particularly important and we need to be careful not to attribute the views of 90 respondents from primarily an urban catchment. We need to understand what the public need and want in both 'museum rich' and 'museum poor' environments. We are committed to supporting the sector in developing its community engagement and these results in themselves will not change this position.
Anonymous
22.04.2013, 13:45
I think this is a very good case in point. Each museum has a different demographic of visitors and people they want to become visitors. As such it is evident that individual museums still need to conduct their own research with their visitors and potential visitors in mind. With that in mind a good network for similar museums to share and discuss their results is always encouraged. That being said, there is still a purpose for the kind of research at a sector wide level to make sure that museums are delivering the basic needs for visitors.
Simon Stephens
MA Member
Deputy Editor, Museums Journal, Museums Association
22.04.2013, 13:32
I'm interested in this question of the high levels of pubic trust in museums that has come out of the research. Everyone seems to have seized on this but I'm not convinced it's an entirely a good thing, particularly when some have said they trust museums but don't visit them. I don't particularly trust artists such as Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst, but that does not mean I'm not interested in their work and want to see it. In fact, it's often because contemporary art is provocative and challenging that I want to see it. Whether it's trustworthy is neither here nor there. Maybe if museums were trusted a little less, they'd be visited a little more. What do the panel think about this issue of trust in museums?
22.04.2013, 13:48
It's also worth pointing out that the public were clear that museums were primarily educational and, although they should be fun, entertaining and interactive, were not and should not be about 'pure enjoyment' like e.g. a theme park.
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
22.04.2013, 13:48
I prefer to think that the public loves our museums in Liverpool, rather than that it trusts them! I'm not sure what "public trust" actually means - it's an even more abstract concept than social justice...
22.04.2013, 13:41
I was interested, but not very surprised, that museums emerged as highly-trusted by members of the public. I think that context everything here.
I would imagine that most museum professionals appreciate that museums and their exhibits are (to some extent) culturally constructed and informed by the politics of the present day. But I wouldn't expect this to be the view of people outside the sector. So there is a sceptical and reflexive instinct that is widely held within the sector, but less so outside of it.
Then add the fact that people report low levels of trust in so many other things in their life (media, politicians etc.) and museums soon become something of an antidote to all that spin.
Viki Cooke
Founding Director, BritainThinks
22.04.2013, 13:40
I think that museums are very different from art galleries. Museums are thought to be about education and learning and have a unique role in informing the future by helping create understanding about the past. One of the most interesting challenges for museums is about how to tackle contemporary issues where there isn't the advantage of 'space' and, perhaps, greater information and perspective. At the launch last week The Imperial War Museum were sharing how they tackle this in a way that they believe doesn't inhibit trust.
The research was not designed to consider how to get people to visit museums more and I imagine there is a lot of thinking and research on that subject.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
22.04.2013, 13:21
A question for Maurice and David in particular, but for the panel in general also: given the findings, what should be the next step for Museums 2020, and the sector?

I get the impression that some in the sector would like to see museums focus solely on collections, but I doubt the findings will stop those that don't hold this view.

Are museums with progressive programmes not making their case impressively enough to the public? Should we as a sector be doing more?
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
22.04.2013, 13:39
The next step for the Museums Association is to change gear, to become more vocal, to champion the great work museums do in all its variety, and to capture this in the 2020 document! It's hard even for the most progressive individual museum to make a case to the public, except on a local level. Someone needs to speak up for the whole sector, nationally, to the public and to national politicians. Since the demise of the MLA the need for the MA to take on this leadership role for the sector has become critical.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
22.04.2013, 13:33
There's a couple of good comments below by 'anonymous' - I'd like to agree with their points that individual museums have huge potential to do a whole range of things (building on the essential purposes) and, more importantly, that we absolutely don't want a return to the dullness of some museums in the past.

Museums 2020 will continue to make the case for museums having a substantial range of impacts on society, to being outward looking and to working in partnership with a wide range of organisations to reach the widest possible audience.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
22.04.2013, 13:10
Isn't the slightly worrying thing for museums that the research seems to be saying the public only wants us to preserve collections and display them in an interesting way?

There doesn't seem to be much appetite for more progressive work on social justice, for instance?
22.04.2013, 13:45
I think the lack of interest for social justice work is because this work is often not the work that we shout about to the public, whereas we do shout about, for example, new exhibitions or major acquisitions. If we promoted our social justice work to the wider public, and demonstrated the positive impacts this has on people and communities, we may find that the public 'appetite' for such work increases.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
22.04.2013, 13:53
I agree that the work needs a higher profile, but the way things are described seems to make a differece to how people respond. The research suggests that terms such as 'political' 'campaigning', 'social justice' do not play well - and even 'human rights' has many negative connotations.
Viki Cooke
Founding Director, BritainThinks
22.04.2013, 13:27
I think that whilst there might not be an active appetite there is an opportunity for museums. The public have real trust in museums and believe that they are well placed to stimulate discussion around a wide range of topics by putting on exhibitions that are balanced and, in the public's eyes, objective. What they were more concerned about was museums trying to impose a view and 'lead them by the nose' to an answer.
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
22.04.2013, 13:19
What is more worrying is when museum professionals attempt to use the findings to justify becoming insular and unambitious, as though all the great things many museums have achieved over the past couple of decades have been a waste of resources.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
22.04.2013, 13:19
It looks like that superficially, but on a deeper reading it's far more nuanced. If you thik about it, it's obvious that the things museums absolutely have to do in order to be musuems are to make their collection available in an engaging way, stimulate learning, and look after the collection. That's what the public felt. They can see the benefits of lots of other things, but think that these are built on a secure foundation of the essential work. The idea that a museum is a specific place you visit came across strongly, too.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
22.04.2013, 13:05
On a first reading the research can appear to say that people have a very narrow view on the roles of museums, but I think it's far more nuanced than that. At last week's seminar to launch research, people were pretty positive, feeling that there's lots in there for museums to build on and liots museums can do with public support.
Anonymous
22.04.2013, 13:09
Were there any roles that were received particularly positively?
22.04.2013, 13:14
As the report states, there were roles that were seen as crucial for museums to undertake (roughly: preserving heritage, fun education for children & authoritative sources of historical information for adults). These were received very positively and explained participants' emotional attachment to museums.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
22.04.2013, 13:13
Overall, the research paints a very positive picture of public attitudes to museums. People associated them strongly with words like learning, education, interesting; they see them as good places to spend time with family and they are highly trusted. But some of the less traditional things museums do were, I think it's true to say, a bit of a surprise to people
Anonymous
22.04.2013, 13:19
The traditional roles for a museum should be seen as the core principles for all museums. The research was looking at museums as a whole. I think if people were asked about specific museums the results might have been different and people would be more positive with regards the less traditional roles.
22.04.2013, 13:27
There did appear to be some variation in attitudes when it came to different museums. For example, protecting the natural environment (or at least providing information about environmental protection) was seen as a purpose that was more appropriate for the Science Museum (or museums in rural communities) than others. The suggestion that museums in less urban areas might play a greater role in fostering a sense of community than city museums also emerged, but was not a consistent finding.

However, during the research process, participants were reminded of different types of museum (from small/niche/local to large/general/national) and, on the whole, attitudes to their purposes were largely consistent.
Viki Cooke
Founding Director, BritainThinks
22.04.2013, 13:03
Would the results have been very different if the research had been with museum visitors only? I suspect not substantively. Around half of the participants were visitors and initially we had them working separately from non-visitors for a while. The reality was that they were having very similar conversations, the visitors were slightly more informed and had more and better examples but were not fundamentally different in their views on the role of museums
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
22.04.2013, 13:00
Welcome to the webchat!

As a starter, what does the panel think of Nicole Deuful's comments regarding metholodogy and the difference between our and the public's aspirations for museums?

http://www.museumsassociation.org/comment/22042013-not-quite-in-harmony
22.04.2013, 13:18
I really welcome Nicole's critical appraisal of the methodology - since this is a fundamental aspect of the research. There are limitations with deliberative research just as there are with other methods. Those associated most often with deliberative research can be overcome through careful facilitation, where participants are able to further interrogate their own views. And by recruiting participants using a proper sampling methodology the participants can be reflective (if not statistically representative) of the population.
Viki Cooke
Founding Director, BritainThinks
22.04.2013, 13:10
I think this is a really interesting and thoughtful response. Just to be clear, we did spend quite a lot of time with the public exploring what they thought museums were for before we exposed thinking from the museums world. Their views were enriched by exposure to this thinking but fundamentally the public believe that the essential purposes are quite simply what makes something a museum. Building on that can be successful but not if it's at the expense of being a museum.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
22.04.2013, 10:42
I'd be interested to hear the panel's reactions to the comments below this piece, in particular with regard to the purpose of museums: http://www.museumsassociation.org/news/03042013-public-attitudes-research-published

And a further question I had was whether the panel thought the findings would have been very different if the research had been aimed at museum visitors rather than citizens?
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
22.04.2013, 13:12
I am absolutely certain that if visitors to the Museum of Liverpool, or the International Slavery Museum, had been involved in the research, the responses would have been very different. The point is, asking people whether they want to see something happen in museums that they've not actually encountered before is bound to elicit indifference at best (and if the question is couched in terms of there being very little money available so priorities have to be identified, hostility).
22.04.2013, 13:40
I completely agree. If people don't realise that museums are doing in terms of social justice and wellbeing - work which perhaps happens 'under the radar' - then it's obviously going to be difficult for them to say that they feel this work is one of the main purposes of museums. I might be wrong, but I believe that people who responded possibly articulated what they think museums do, rather than what they feel museums *could* and *should* do.
22.04.2013, 14:00
During the workshops, we provided participants with information about some of the less traditional activities that museums currently do. During one of the workshops, Tony Butler (Director at Museum of East Anglian Life) even gave a talk on the activities undertaken there, including some particularly unconventional ones. While they were received warmly, participants had the same view on the hierarchy of purposes at the end of the session to participants at other workshops who hadn't received the talk.

Participants were very clearly thinking about what museums could and should do - it's probably the case, however, that, for the public, 'could' and 'should' are often very similar to 'is'.
22.04.2013, 13:08
Hi Patrick,

I'll let my other panel members tackle the "purpose" question.

It's highly likely that the results would have been different if BritainThinks had asked people directly about their own museum experiences (such as their likes and dislikes). It's actually quite a challenge to get people to think abstractly about their role as citizens.
Anonymous
22.04.2013, 07:47
I just hope people remember pre 1997 when museums had a huge image problem of being stuffy, musty and exclusive places precisely because they were mainly focussing on 'essential purposes' related to care and research of collections. Post 1997 we have seen a period of investment in capital projects and audience development that has regenerated public interest in museums and returned them to health. Museums mostly conform to 'tried and tested' cultural trends in the sector at any given time - they all copy each other - so engaging with diverse communities and 'the underground' at grass roots level can reinvigorate their creativity and help bring them up to speed!
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
22.04.2013, 13:29
I disagree that 1997 was a watershed for socially inclusive museum work, because a huge amount of such work was already going on in the local government museum sector, such as at Tyne and Wear Museums and Glasgow. I do agree that after that date there appeared to be greater Government interest in the potential for museums to be widely accessible (and therefore in the potential to play a greater role in society).